5 Steps for Optimal Muscle Recovery
Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN
You know the feeling: after exercising, your muscles tighten, and you feel tired, hungry, and sore. These symptoms are messages from your body, asking for more rest and recovery.
Muscle recovery needs to be on your radar whether you are a weekend warrior, getting back to the gym after having a baby, an athlete, or an occasional exerciser. Optimizing recovery will help you meet your health and fitness goals and feel better along the way.
Keep reading to learn more about:
- What muscle recovery is and why it’s important
- Easy, natural ways to optimize muscle recovery (And overall health)
Importance of Muscle Recovery after Working Out
Exercise damages and stresses muscles, causing tiny tears in the tissue. Afterward, the body responds to that stress and works to repair the damage. This breakdown then buildup is the process of building and maintaining muscle mass. It’s how we adapt to exercise and get stronger over time.
Exercise isn’t just stress on the muscles but also the heart, bones, tendons, and the entire body. In most cases, exercise is good stress. The short-term stress produces beneficial longer-term results in terms of health and fitness.
But the muscle recovery after a workout may cause some discomfort, such as:
All of which leaves you in a weaker state with an increased risk of injury. Luckily, all of this is temporary and subsides once your body recovers.
An average recovery time is around 24 to 48 hours post-exercise and will vary depending on:
- Fitness level
- Type of exercise – strength training, endurance, etc.
- Duration of exercise
- Many of the factors we will discuss below, such as nutrition, hydration, and sleep
When we don’t allow enough recovery time, we may see the symptoms of overtraining, such as exhaustion, nutrient deficiencies, and hormone imbalances. Muscle recovery may be as important as the exercise itself in reaching your fitness goals.
When it comes to exercise, more isn’t always more. Many times, you can do less for better results. Here’s your permission to allow the time and space for exercise recovery.
How To Improve Muscle Recovery
Let’s explore natural ways to experience faster recovery time by optimizing the recovery process.
#1 - Focus on Nutrition
Overall nutrition is vital for muscle recovery. Amino acids from protein in food are the building blocks needed for muscle repair and growth. Vitamins and minerals support muscle and tissue repair. Carbohydrates are stored in muscles (and the liver) as glycogen, an energy source that is tapped during exercise and then must be replaced.
Protein-rich foods are one of the best foods for muscle recovery. To optimize muscle recovery, ensure you meet your overall protein needs for the day. Learn more about protein and how much you need to eat in this article.
In addition, the standard recommendation is to eat protein plus carbs within one hour of moderate or intense exercise. This can be a full, balanced meal or, if it’s not mealtime yet, a substantial snack such as a protein smoothie. Protein powders (collagen-egg, whey, or vegan) are a convenient option for post-workout recovery.
A couple of examples of post-workout snacks that contain a robust protein serving along with whole food carbohydrates include:
#2 - Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
Sweating during exercise leads to loss of fluid and less hydration in the muscles. Dehydration affects every aspect of health and even your next workout if not adequately replaced.
You may need more water than you think, especially if you live in a hot or dry climate, drink alcohol or caffeine, and work out intensely.
When addressing hydration, consider:
- Overall hydration for the day – Ensure you drink enough baseline water, typically at least 60 ounces per day.
- Extra hydration before, during, and after exercise – Depending on the intensity and duration of your training and the climate, be sure to hydrate appropriately.
- Electrolytes – Electrolytes are the minerals required for fluid balance in the body that you also lose through sweat. Using an electrolyte powder supplement is a convenient way to replace electrolytes.
#3 - Stretch, Loosen, and Soothe Muscles
Exercise can cause the tightening of muscles, which may contribute to soreness, pain, and inflammation. There are many ways to promote muscle relaxation and promote better recovery. Here are some ideas:
- Stretching – Include stretching in your movement routine to help loosen and elongate muscles. Stretching has been shown to reduce pain perception. Foam rolling is another supportive option.
- Hot and cold therapy – A cold compress reduces blood flow and inflammation, while heat increases blood flow and helps muscles relax. You can alternate or see what feels good to you.
- Bath soak – A hot bath with Epsom salts allows magnesium to absorb into the skin, supporting muscle relaxation, recovery, and restful sleep. Add 1-2 cups per bath and stay hydrated as you soak.
- Massage – Massage therapy and bodywork reduce soreness and inflammation while promoting circulation, which helps with muscle repair and recovery. Massage is also supportive for post-workout fatigue.
#4 - Schedule Rest Days
There is no need to push intense exercise every day. Rest and recovery days are necessary for avoiding overtraining. Too much exercise puts added stress on the body because it can’t effectively recover, which then works against your fitness goals.
Here are some tips:
- Schedule rest days weekly to allow muscles to recover.
- Consider active recovery as part of your fitness schedule. Active recovery involves low-intensity movement on rest days, such as taking a walk or doing gentle yoga.
- Listen to your body. Let your body be your guide. Remember that fatigue, soreness, and other symptoms are messages from your body asking for what it needs. Listen.
- Try a wearable device, such as a heart rate variability monitor, to help you understand your recovery time, what days are good for intense exercise, and what days your body desires more rest or restorative movement instead.
#5 - Sleep and Muscle Recovery
Sleep is the time when muscles repair and grow. But sleep isn’t just crucial for muscle recovery; it’s essential for total body wellness.
Poor sleep impairs cognitive function, metabolism, hormone balance, and athletic performance. Lack of sleep promotes muscle loss instead of recovery.
Unfortunately, many of us don’t get the seven to nine recommended hours of sleep, or if we do, it’s interrupted or of poor quality. Technology, parenting, work pressure, habits, and other demands explain the cultural decline in sleep.
Fortunately, however, improving sleep may be as simple as adopting new habits and strategies. If you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, getting enough sleep, or feeling rested in the morning, try these tips:
- Set a regular bedtime and stick to it. When you prioritize sleep, you may need to let go of some other things.
- Limit the use of screens before bed. The blue light from screens suppresses melatonin (sleep hormone) production, making it harder to fall asleep. If you must be on a screen in the evening, try using blue light blocking glasses.
- Be mindful of caffeine and alcohol use as both can affect sleep.
- Create a relaxing bedtime ritual. The 30-60 minutes before bed is an excellent time to take a bath, read, journal, stretch, drink herbal tea, or engage in other relaxing activities. Checking email or social media right before bed may not be relaxing.
- Make your bedroom cool, dark, and comfortable. You may need to invest in black-out curtains, a fan, or a new pillow. If light pollution enters your room, try sleeping with a sleep mask.
- Try a gentle sleep supplement. Magnesium is a mineral that promotes relaxation and sleep when taken in the evening and is the main ingredient in Twenty2 Nutrition Peaceful Sleep. This formula also contains:
- Tart cherry – a natural source of melatonin
- GABA – a neurotransmitter that calms the nervous system
- L-theanine – an amino acid known for easing anxiety and stress
- Melatonin – the sleep hormone
While working on sleep might not seem as important as the exercise, it will improve energy, exercise performance, and muscle recovery. It will also benefit your metabolism, brain function, and mood.
Understanding muscle recovery helps promote a healthy relationship with exercise by allowing permission for rest and healing. Now that we’ve discussed ways to promote optimal muscle health, what’s one strategy you’ll implement after your next challenging workout?
Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN is a functional nutritionist, writer, and recipe creator. Ryah helps clients use a natural, food-as-medicine approach to improve fertility, hormone balance, autoimmunity, and discover a healthy relationship with food and body. Learn more about Ryah and her private practice at econutrition.co.